Ákos Egyed

Amnesty and Retribution in Transylvania in the Spring of 1849

The most complex and most controversial question in Transylvanian history throughout 1848-49 is how the revolution, after a peaceful start in March 1848, turned into a bloody and devastating civil war. The problem was discussed at length by historians, both Hungarian, Romanian and Saxon, with each coming up with different, and usually quite contradicting, answers. Romanian historians have singled out the union between Hungary and Transylvania as the chief source of the dramatic conflict, identifying the Szekler National Assembly in mid October as the cause that sparked off the events. This view was more or less adopted by the old school of Saxon historians, also.

Without questioning the claim that the declaration of the union might have generated some tension between the national minorities, the majority of the Hungarian researchers think that this should not have necessarily led to civil war, as the Hungarian leadership were verifiably looking for the possible ways of reconciliation all along. This purpose was served by the abolition of the feudal laws, so much resented by the Romanians, and their replacement with legislation guaranteeing bourgeois liberties at the Diet of Transylvania. The same applied to the abolition of serfdom on June 18, 1848, which benefited the Romanians above else, as most of the emancipated serfs were of Romanian stock. We should add to this that some members of the Union Committee, which was established at the Diet of Transylvania and then was working at the representative Parliament of Pest, were busy to draft a nationality law which prescribed the wide-scale use of the nationalities' mother tongue in education, in religious life and in public administration. To explain the fact that the enactment of bill was delayed, and was passed only in the final weeks of the war of liberation, one should look not only in current Hungarian political thinking, as the majority of historians have suggested, but also, and above else, in the unfavourable turn of events that came about in the relations between the imperial power and Hungary in September. It was this event that pushed Transylvania at the brink of a civil war: the disarmament of the Hungarian national guards began, along with the internment and torture of Hungarian nobility and officials. To aggravate the situation, General Puchner entrusted the Romanian and Saxon armed insurgents with the task of disarming the Hungarians. To give the most articulate answer to the question what the imperial authority's purpose might have been with this, we quote Domokos Kosáry: "...regardless of a certain antagonism that did exist among the nationalities of the Danube Basin, the blame for exploiting this antagonism for its own purpose and inciting it to armed conflict ultimately rests with the counter-revolution in Vienna. For them what mattered most was not whether this or that nationalism achieved its goals, but that they find an ally against the Hungarians." The majority of this allied army was made up by the insurgent Romanian peasants.

In addition to the Hungarian landlords, the undisciplined, and in many cases unruly, insurgent peasantry also attacked the Hungarian communities and churches in October and November with an uncontrolled fury. In the course of this they slaughtered a large number of Hungarian civilians, most notably in Alsó-Fejér County and in Mezöség, besides pillaging and burning down most of the Hungarian manors and palaces. Sources describe atrocities unparalleled since the peasant revolts in the Middle Ages. Although the Romanian villages also suffered heavy losses, the losses of the Hungarian population during the autumn and winter of 1848 were incomparably larger; by the end of the year this figure reached approximately 3,500 (and continued to increase throughout 1849).

As is well-known, General Bem's campaign at the end of December produced a new turn in Transylvania's situation: he drove the enemy out of Transylvania with an extremely dynamic counter-attack. Parallel with this, the Hungarian government had to make up its mind about the course of political action it wished to implement in Transylvania torn by civil war. Since this question is a rather controversial one in Hungarian historiography, we have to make a short detour to unravel the details.

The difficulty arises from the fact that our historiography has still not been able to uncover the Transylvanian events of 1849 in substantial detail. Relatively much has been said in connection with Bem's campaign and the by now customary description of the relationship between Kossuth and Bem, as well as between government commissioner Csányi and Bem. The nationality politics of Kossuth and Csányi has been subjected to much criticism, and still much more praise has been bestowed on Bem's offer of amnesty. Indeed, Kossuth got around to starting negotiations with the Romanians relatively late, but we must also understand how much Transylvanian politics had been affected by its internal affairs, such as the acts of brutalities committed by the Romanian insurgents. Nor have the changes, not insignificant by any means, been sufficiently appreciated that periodically took place in Kossuth's politics in the course of 1849.

Among all other things, we need to pay due attention to the history of 1849 so as to counterbalance the one-sided approach of Romanian historiography by a rigorous presentation of the facts. Save a few exceptions, Romanian historians elaborately discuss the Romanian martyrs of the civil war, while either remaining silent about the Hungarian victims or underestimating their numbers. In addition, they fail to distinguish between events of very different characters: for example, they discuss the Hungarian legal procedures for criminal acts committed during the civil war together with the activities of the hunters' posses, yet they cannot differentiate between the clashes of these groups with the insurgents and their actions to disarm the Romanian villages. On top of everything else, they put the blame for the excesses and the overstepping of authority committed by these groups, quite unfairly, on the main leaders of the Hungarian government, on Kossuth, Beöthy and Csányi.

One problem that we shall address in the following will be whether the amnesty announced by Bem had been a partisan action, or whether it had been also approved by the Hungarian government, or Kossuth in specific. To get an answer to our question we should consider that Bem described the basic principles of the proclamation issued at Nagyvárad on December 6, 1848 as "rights confirmed by the country's government". In consequence, he assured the peoples of Transylvania of the following rights: "All inhabitants, without respect to nationality, religion and birth, are equal, and have the same rights to bear all offices, as long as they serve the state honestly and loyally and possess the necessary qualifications." Furthermore: "Although the Hungarian language has been registered as the language of the Parliament, all other peoples can retain their nationality, and are allowed to use their own language in their own affairs, in addition to the Hungarian language. The government extends the same protection to all religions, without differentiation."

There is no question that when Kossuth appointed Bem as supreme commander of the Transylvanian army, he also disclosed to the General the basic principles of his politics in Transylvania, entitling him to reveal those to the public. It is hardly a coincidence, therefore, that Bem found it necessary to emphasise: everything he offered had been approved by the government. In his proclamation issued in three languages at Kolozsvár on December 27, 1848, Bem clarified the political line in Transylvania: "A general amnesty is given for political offences of all kinds in the entire country," although he immediately added that all offences against the "constitutional government" would be tried by summary courts, and the same applied for concealing weapons.

All this was not in conflict with the policies of Kossuth and Beöthy, the chief government commissioner in Transylvania; we cannot, therefore, accept the excellent Bem-researcher Endre Kovács's observation that the Kolozsvár proclamation marked the beginning of "Bem's own minority politics, independent of the government's". The Kolozsvár proclamation differed only in wording from the Nagyvárad principles, which-as we have pointed out earlier-Bem issued on behalf of the government.

With all this we do not wish to give the impression that the instructions of General Bem and Chief Commissioner Beöthy were in complete harmony. This would not have been possible for the simple fact that, in accordance with their appointment, Bem was responsible for military matters, and Beöthy for civil affairs. Bem's task was to take Transylvania back, Beöthy's to restore internal peace and to apply the Union law. Without mentioning the crimes committed in the Autumn of 1848, Bem clearly stated in his amnesty that only the offenders of political crimes would be pardoned. Although Beöthy said nothing of the amnesty in his decree of January 6, he thought that the restoration of "law and constitutional freedom" would be possible through "persuasion and appeasement", rather than through terror; also, at that time the government's offer to pay compensation for the damages made by the insurgents at an estimated value was still on, in the interest of domestic peace. The job of the hunting posses to be recruited was not to take revenge for the atrocities committed, but "to disarm the Vlach-speaking people and to recover the looted goods, wherever they are to be found." There is no question of retribution, as Beöthy warned everyone concerned that "those who have no faith in their moral purity and honesty should not join this army, because the task of the Hungarian army, regardless of all the injuries and anti-bourgeois atrocities committed against it, is not to pay back in kind, as this would be permissible neither for its historical reputation nor on account of its world-renowned upright character."

Another meaningful piece of evidence is that Lieutenant Colonel (later on General) Czetz, the commander of the division stationed at Torda, asked Beöthy to substitute Batallion 11, which had been recruited mostly at Kolozsvár and Nagyenyed, with some other troops of farther recruiting to prevent those soldiers whose relatives had fallen victims to Romanian insurgents' brutality from taking revenge.

On the basis of re-interpreting the available historical sources, we believe that when the Transylvanian campaign was launched, those leaders of the Hungarian cause who were directly involved in the Transylvanian affairs, Kossuth, Bem, Beöthy and Czetz, were looking for possible ways of a peaceful settlement, and at that time there were still no major differences between them in this regard. This search for a peaceful solution was disturbed by the bloody riot at Nagyenyed on January 8-9, 1849, which, indeed, produced a rift between the politics of Kossuth, the new chief commissioner Csányi and Bem, respectively.

Approximately 800 Hungarian civilians were murdered by the insurgents at Nagyenyed, forcing at least two thousand more to take refuge in the nearby woods, villages and towns. Most of the houses were burnt down, the collections and the library of the famous Bethlen college were looted and scattered all over. A few days later the insurgents raided Alsójára, Hari, Nagylak and Borosbenedek, killing off many of the Hungarins there. The Romanian troops were commanded by Axente Sever, who in contemporary opinion was made to bear the responsibility for the atrocities at Enyed, also.

The incidents at Enyed, Jára and elsewhere outraged the Hungarian politicians who became convinced that the Romanian insurgents were bent on the extermination of the entire Hungarian population in Transylvania. More and more of them demanded firmer action and punishment, not only for the latest events but also in response to the atrocities and devastation committed in the Autumn and Winter of 1848. General Bem was against requital for earlier crimes.

First one to ask his superiors for firmer measures was Lieutenant Colonal Czetz, who had earlier displayed a great self-restraint. The replacement of the Chief Government Commissioner could also be traced back to the events of Enyed: although he referred to ill health, Beöthy resigned as a result of a crisis of consciousness in the aftermath of the Enyed tragedy. Kossuth accepted his resignation, appointing in his place László Csányi, who had up till then been commissioner posted to the armies fighting against Jelac ic. According to the decree annoucing the appointment on January 27, 1849, "the great task laid upon the commissioner's shoulders was the re-organisation, pacification and restoration of the country ravaged by insurgents, their disciplining on the basis of obedience to Hungarian law." Kossuth was careful to emphasise that protection of the Hungarian nation's future in Transylvania could not mean tyranny over others. The peoples' sympathy for Hungarian constitutional rule and sovereignty must be won. When Kossuth invested Csányi with plenipotentiary powers, he described the policies to be implemented as follows: "You must be led either by mercy or by an uncompromising sense of justice in punishing the crimes, as the circumstances or your judgement require. But be it mercy or justice, it must convey strength." Kossuth instructed Csányi to disarm the Romanian frontier guards, asking him to maintain the best of terms with General Bem.

The hardest of Csányi's tasks was how to disarm the Romanian insurgents and how to round up the people committing the atrocities during the civil war. The new Commissioner in Chief tried to keep the troops carrying out the disarmament in check. Typical was the instruction he sent to Area Commander Egloffstein of Torda: Pay heed to ensure that "the armed forces commit no excesses, or if do, they be punished severely! This should be also observed in places that have already surrendered. The most effective way to restrain people from rebellion and to enlist them for our cause is to show them that if they show loyalty, their persons and property will be safeguarded."

However, this method failed to work everywhere; in many instances disarmament demanded the use of force, in the course of which the posses did, indeed, commit some excesses, sometimes taking the law into their own hands.

To prevent people from taking the law into their own hands, proper courts had to be set up; however, historiography knows very little about this legal form of dispensing justice. The Marxist school of Hungarian historiography mostly failed to differentiate between the actions of the posses and the courts, while the Romanian historians claimed that these "hanging judges" condemned thousands of Romanians to death, and the posses executed insurgents merely on the ground that they were Romanians. In fact, there is a clear distinction here: the courts tried to establish the guilt of criminal offenders in a legal procedure, while the posses disarmed the insurgents and rounded up the guilty parties, using their arms only when they encountered resistance, in the course of which, as we have pointed out earlier, sometimes they did take the law into their own hands.

All in all, eight summary courts were set up in Transylvania. These were formed in March and April. They were all presided over by persons with legal qualifications. In the majority of the cases, they held trials during April and May, except in Kolozsvár and in Nagyszeben, where mixed summary courts continued to try people in June.

It is important to note here that the summary courts could only pass two sentences: in case of finding the accused guilty the verdict was death, and if their guilt could not be proven, the accused were acquitted. The verdict had to be unanimous. In order to avoid having to apply the full severity of law, such cases were referred to civilian courts. A new form was the summary and mixed courts, which could hand out sentences as mild as a few-day-long detention.

On May 5 Minister of Justice Sebö Vukovics ruled on the possible defence of people standing trial in summary and mixed courts. Nevertheless, a bill enacted on February 13 already laid down that an accused was allowed either "to defend himself, or to name his counsellor"; on failing to do either of these, the court should appoint a counsellor for him.

Numerous reliable sources are available on the sentences passed by the Hungarian courts. One such source is a list compiled by the imperial authorities in 1850. According to this a total of 478 persons were sentenced to death in Transylvania. The courts passed the death sentence on people who had killed civilians in the civil war. In other instances, such as looting, burning, the persecution and disarmament of Hungarians, incitement, fraternising and co-operating with the enemy, the accused were usually sentenced to confinement, payment of compensation or occasionally corporal punishment. Quite often the courts acquitted the accused. In illustration we can give the example of Doboka County for the simple reason that we have relatively accurate information in the case of this county, for the period between January and July 14, covering, therefore, the entire length of the courts' activity. According to this information, 228 persons were arrested in this county on various charges. To be precise, 113 persons were detained for robbery, 23 for robbery and other offences, and 29 for robbery and murder. All the other arrests were made on charges of instigation, persecution of Hungarians, intention to murder and other causes.

What is interesting from our point of view is the fact that those detained for murder or intention to murder accounted for 15.32 per cent of the total number of arrests, while the percentage of the death sentences was 12.28, meaning that less people were sentenced to death than those questioned in connection with murder. One hundred and ten people (48.25 per cent) were given prison sentences, eleven people were lashed, and five persons had to pay compensation, as well as serve time.

We could cite the information collected from other counties, also, but that would not change the situation substantially, namely it would not alter the fact that the courts in the majority of cases passed sentences on the perpetrators of ordinary crimes.

Of the politically motivated trials, the death sentences of Prefect Batraneau Alexandru and Tribune Vasile Simonis in October 1848 deserve special attention; both men were sentenced to death by the Saxon vicar Stephan Ludwig Roth, who was then arrested on Csányi's orders, eventually put to death for his actions against "the Hungarian homeland, its constitution, civil liberties and sovereignty". The political trials, and above else Stephan Ludwig Roth's death sentence, greatly damaged the processes of reconciliation between Hungarians and Romanians and Hungarians and Saxons. On the other hand, Roth's execution contributed to the decision to abolish the summary courts. In his decree issued at Nagyszeben on June 5, 1849 General Bem ordered the suspension of summary courts, and this decision was never overruled by the government. For the rest of the time justice was served in the ordinary and superior courts.

Besides the courts, the various military units, and most notably the commanders of the posses, also passed summary sentences. The scale of this has lately been wildly overestimated in propagandistic Romanian historiography and political propaganda. In part, this is attributed to the point that usually they fail to distinguish between soldiers killed on the battlefields and civilian casualties. Clearly, these are two different categories: the cases of those killed in action are the inevitable consequences of war, while the destruction of civilian population constitutes a crime against mankind. Secondly, Romanian propaganda exaggerates, because it uses sources that put the number of civilian casualties among Romanians at ten times over the actual figure. This is contradicted by statistical information gathered in Transylvania by the imperial authorities in 1850. The statistical tables produced by the imperial authorities give the number of civilian casualties among Romanians as 4,321 or 4,425. This figure is a convincing refutation of the alleged 40,000 Romanian casualties, suggested by Romanian propaganda. Against the information revealed by the imperial document, the other alleged claim, whereby the Hungarians executed only Romanians is also untenable. The various courts handed out the death sentence to 252 Hungarian nationalities, to those who committed murder or other serious crimes during the Autumn and Winter of 1848.

First and foremost among the motives of the retribution stands the fact that the Romanian and Saxon insurgents killed approximately 7,500 or 8,500 Hungarian nationalities during the Autumn and Winter of 1848 and the Spring of 1849, while they looted and wrecked most of the manors and castles of the Hungarian nobility, torturing and killing all those who were unable to escape. Therefore, almost twice as many Hungarians were killed, than the Romanians tried and executed.

Naturally, the question arises whether historiography should concern itself with the horrors of civil wars. We are of the opinion that the events must be reconstructed, so as to allow a real dialogue between the various historiographies. This is made all the more necessary, since in the past decade Romanian propagandistic historiography and political propaganda have conducted a vigorous campaign to stain the Hungarian revolution and war of independence. One spectacular example of this was when they put up a plaque on the former Hotel Biasini of Kolozsvár, worded in Romanian and English and disclosing the false information that the Hungarian nobility had executed 40,000 Romanians during 1848 and 1849. We believe that a very good gesture towards reconciliation would be to have that plaque removed.